Participants at Queens meeting. Liberation photo: Joyce Chediac

Pressured by attendees holding up signs reading “Fund communities, not jails!” and “Unfair, unsafe, too big – vote no!” on May 28, the lower Manhattan community board voted against the city’s proposed plan to tear down the Manhattan Detention Complex and build a larger jail in Chinatown.

Across New York City, community members and organizers with the No New Jails campaign have made it loud and clear that this plan is unacceptable. The NNJ campaign has its roots in the decades-long struggle to close Rikers Island, the notorious prison complex in which almost 80 percent of inmates have not been convicted of any crime and are locked up simply because they cannot afford bail.

In the last month, community boards across Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and now Manhattan have voted against the plan to spend $10 billion to construct “community” jails in the four boroughs. This series of public board meetings began in Queens on April 24, when hundreds of community members packed the room to hotly debate the construction of a new jail in Kew Gardens.

The meeting began with slick propaganda from the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, which attempted to repackage the prisons as “modern,” and “welcoming.” A representative went so far as to call the jail cells “housing units,” which was met with shocked laughter from the community.

At Bronx community board meeting. Liberation photo.

As many would later say during open comments: there is no such thing as humane cages for our people. The presentation painted the jail project as mostly a done deal, laying out the bureaucratic timeline and opportunities for community “input.”

From lifelong Queens residents, teachers, and community organizers – people lined up at the mic  to denounce the plan, one after another.

“If the city builds new jails, it will find a way to fill them. The city is going to set up arbitrary laws to target the blackest, brownest, and poorest communities. This has been the strategy over and over again. Locking people away does not solve society’s problems,”said Carolyn Y, a lifelong Queens resident and organizer with the No New Jails campaign.

Carolyn continued, “In NYC more money is spent on incarceration per person than it is spent per student, on public housing, and transportation. If deBlasio says there’s billions of our money for private developers to build jails, than he better say there is money to give back to us, our communities – the people who create this value in the first place.”

The following day, the new jails plan was discussed at a Community Board 1 meeting in the Bronx. Once again, many attendees spoke out against the plan, emphasizing how this $10 billion could be used towards underfunded public schools, community programs, and jobs.

“Our kids needs dignified jobs and better opportunities. Our youth are struggling everyday to survive in a country that priorities profit over human needs,” said Graciela P, a Bronx born and raised public school teacher and a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

She was met with roaring applause as she exclaimed, “Almost $10 billion of our tax dollars is being robbed from meeting human needs to send  our youth to prisons, which rich people profit from. . . No more cages for our youth! The only people who should be in cages are those who rob our communities of funds and  fuel oppression and violence against our people — the politicians, bankers, and cops!”

One battle in a larger war

New Yorkers do not need more cages for our communities. The ridiculous $10 billion dollar budget for this plan can instead be used to fix the city’s crumbling subway system, underfunded public schools, and create safe and affordable housing in the face of an affordable housing crisis

While public pressure prompted these community boards to vote “no,” these votes are merely advisory.  The  New York City Council gets the  final say on whether or not this plan goes through.

Just as the city’s disastrous rezoning plans (aka hypergentrification) in working class neighborhoods like East Harlem have been passed in the City Council  with zero support from the community, this plan to build four new jails can easily be approved because those in power are the only ones who have the legal “authority” to stop it.

Queens. Liberation photo: Joyce Chediac

Furthermore, even if the Council votes against the new jails, there is no current legal guarantee that Rikers will be closed, or that the more  fundamental problem of decreasing the prison population  will be dealt with. Instead of tackling the baseline problems of the prison system in New York and America, the city aims to simply build new jail cells.

As has happened time and again, if they build a prison, they will fill it. The racist NYPD is larger than the military forces of most industrialized nations. The NYPD’s sheer manpower, military-grade surveillance technology, and $5.5 billion annual budget make it the perfect apparatus to target people of color, immigrants, youth caught in the school-to-prison pipeline, homeless people and the poorest communities.

At these community board meetings, organizers have won one battle in a larger war by getting the community boards to vote “no.” Activists  plan to keep the pressure on, and build a mass movement to stop this criminal plan from passing and to shut down Rikers.